Technical Report

Elk Ecology and Management Perspectives at Mount Rainier National Park
William P, Bradley, Chas. H. Driver


The chain of events outlined in the preceding summary indicates that the conflict over elk management in Mount Rainier National Park can be approached through a logical and orderly chain of events. There a were and are conflicts and disagreements between agencies involving the interpretation of research results, over the severity of the problem, and its method of handling. Part of the controversy lies in the differing management objectives of the agencies involved. Some officials from the Washington State Game Department and the US Forest Service believe that what the National Park Service calls impact represents elk "use" and not "abuse." These agencies have differing responsibilities but both are actively involved in the management of habitat to promote the enhancement of big game populations.

In one sense, they are quite correct. The sub-alpine environments of Mount Rainier National Park could actually support a denser elk population than now exists based on standing biomass of available vegetation. Early environmental concerns that elk impact within Mount Rainier National Park would result in the sub-alpine system literally washing down the sides of the mountain and into Puget Sound are incorrect. However, the management objectives of the Park Service as mandated by Congress are quite different from these other two agencies. The NPS is responsible for conserving and preserving the integrity of an ecologically unique sub-alpine meadow system as defined by the synecological studies of plant ecologists. The complexity and composition of these meadows have been previously documented and studied by both Hamann (1972) and Henderson (1974). The NPS is not in the business of managing meadow systems as elk summer range, but rather in preserving this unique ecological entity as part of the natural heritage of millions of Americans.

The differing opinions and conflicts between these land use agencies, then, are not necessarily biological ones, but rather are basic differences in management objectives. This takes the controversy out of the realm of mere biology and places it in the bio-political arena. Ability to resolve these differences in management objectives, therefore, revolves around the willingness of the separate agencies to sit down and share concern for each other's problems and perspectives. One of the more unique aspects of the Mount Rainier elk story is that this is being accomplished by these various agencies. All participants have demonstrated a willingness to look beyond their agency's philosophical perspective and appreciate the constraints faced by the other agencies.

The Park Service's reaction to this situation is particularly noteworthy. In past resource conflicts of this nature, the NPS has received considerable public criticism for actions taken without input from other resource agencies. In some cases, the NPS's reaction has been to withdraw within itself and carry on all further efforts in-house. The response to the present situation was exemplary and merits review. The NPS first called attention to this situation as a problem. It gathered all potentially involved agencies into a public forum to discuss the situation and receive input. Realizing nothing would be accomplished without research data, the NPS commissioned an independent and unbiased body of investigators to appraise the elk situation. It allowed these investigators to operate outside park boundaries during the general hunting season. It took the results of this research and formulated management alternatives, and again turned and presented these before the public inter-agency committee. The NPS took no actions solely on its own, but pressed hard for resolution of its problem based on the research data.

The NPS has also made a long-range commitment to elk research and monitoring within the park. Recently, a permanent vegetative monitoring system was designed and installed (Hanley et al. 1979) to monitor the effects of elk within the sub-alpine system. The Park Service continues to monitor elk population levels every summer with the aerial census program.

There are still many problems associated with the presence of elk in Mount Rainier. The north herd is continually increasing and it is hoped that a management solution involving sport hunting can be derived for this herd. The NPS has also been forced to accept the permanence of elk within these ecosystems as there are too many points of re-introduction around the park boundary to feel that elk could ever be permanently eliminated. Although all these matters are still of paramount managerial concern, the Mount Rainier elk situation has become a classic combination of problem definition, research activities, and inter-agency coordination.

The NPS needed a determination of a tenable level of impact beyond which it felt it could no longer perform its own management perogatives. It then needed the sympathetic cooperation of outside management agencies to achieve any hope of rectifying the situation. These things were and are being achieved in the Mount Rainier elk herd. Such responsible actions by the NPS and by all agencies connected with this inter-agency approach at elk management should serve as a model for similar confrontations in the future.

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Last Updated: Monday, 01-Dec-2003 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division

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